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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Obama Awards Medal of Honor to Edward Byers; Supreme Court Justice Ask Questions from Bench; Trump in KKK Controversy Ahead of Super Tuesday. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired February 29, 2016 - 11:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[11:30:00] BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Few Americans ever see it. I am truly privileged and humbled that, as commander-in-chief, I do get to see it. I've given the orders sending you into harm's day. I see the difference you make every day, the partners you train, the relationships you forge, the other hostages that you've brought home, the terrorists that you take out. I've waited, like many of you, in those minutes that seem like hours when the margin between success and failure is razor thin, for word that the team is out safe. I've grieved with you and stood with you to welcome our heroes on their final journey home.

Our Special Operations forces are a strategic national asset. They teach us that humans are more important than hardware. Today is a reminder that our nation has to keep investing in this irreplaceable asset, which means deploying the Special Operators wisely, preserving force and family, making sure these incredible Americans stay strong in body, mind and spirit.

I'll end where I started, with the SEAL ethos: "In times of war or uncertainty, there's a special breed of warrior ready to answer our nation's call, a common man with uncommon desire to succeed. Forged by adversity, he stands alongside America's finest Special Operations forces to serve his country, the American people, and protect their way of life."

Senior Chief Edward Byers Junior is such a man. Chief Petty Officer Nicholas Check was that man. Every Navy SEAL and Special Operator who serves with honor in his chosen profession is that man.

The American people may not always see them. We may not always hear of their success. But they are there in the thick of the fight, in the dark of night, achieving their mission. We thank God they're there. We sleep more peacefully in our beds tonight because patriots like these stand ready to answer our nation's call and protect our way of life now and forever.

As we prepare for the reading of citation, I ask you to join me in expressing America's profound gratitude to Navy SEALS Ed Byers and all our quiet professionals.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president of the United States in the name of the Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers Junior, United States Navy, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a hostage rescue force team member in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom on 829 December 2012.

As the rescue force approached the target building, an enemy sentry detected them and darted inside to alert his fellow captors. The sentry quickly reemerged and the lead assaulter attempted to neutralize him. Chief Byers with his team sprinted to the door of the target building. As the primary breecher, Chief Byers stood in the doorway fully exposed to enemy fire while ripping down six layers of heavy blankets fastened to the inside ceilings and walls to clear a path for the rescue force. The first assaulter pushed his way through the blankets and was mortally wounded by enemy small arms fire from within. Chief Byers, completely aware of the imminent threat, fearlessly rushed into the room and engaged an enemy guard aiming an A.K. 47 at him. He then tackled another adult male who had darted towards the corner of the room. During the ensuing hand-to-hand struggle, Chief Byers confirmed the man was not the hostage and engaged him. As the other rescue team members called out to the hostage, Chief Byers heard a voice respond in English and raced towards it. He jumped atop the American hostage and shielded him from the high volume of fire within the small room. While covering the hostage with his body, Chief Byers immobilized another guard with his bare hands and restrained the guard until a teammate could eliminate him. His bold and decisive actions under fire saved the lives of the hostage and several of his teammates.

By his undaunting courage, intrepid fighting spirit and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of near-certain death, Chief Petty Officer Byers reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

(APPLAUSE)

[11:36:40] UNIDENTIFIED CHAPLAIN: Let us pray. Lord of earth and sea and sky, as we conclude this moving and beautiful ceremony, we offer you our prayers for the country we serve. You have blessed America with riches and with strength. May we use them to make this more just, peaceable and humane. You have blessed America also with the tradition of heroes like that of senior Chief Byers and his brethren in arms. May we treasure that history and may it inspire all of us to serve bravely, generously, and faithfully. Amen.

OBAMA: That concludes the ceremony, but we actually throw a pretty good party here.

(LAUGHTER)

And I've been told the food is pretty good. We welcome all of you to join us in the reception.

Ed and I will have take a few more pictures before he joins you, but we're so grateful to him. We're grateful to his wonderful family.

Mom, I'm glad that you could come. (LAUGHTER)

We are grateful for our other Medal of Honor recipients who are here, and to all the Special Forces who are here. We are extraordinarily grateful to you.

This is, obviously, an award for individual heroism, but I'm glad we're able to make the broader point. We are so grateful for your service to our nation.

Thank you very much, everybody. God bless. God bless America.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHN BERMAN: CNN ANCHOR: An important moment, a heartfelt moment, a moment when the nation can come together to honor, frankly, heroism. Navy Senior Chief Edward Byers, awarded the highest military honor in the land, the Congressional Medal of Honor. A lovely ceremony. The president used points just beyond the heroism and valor shown by this one Navy SEAL.

I want to bring in CNN national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, and CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

First off, Barbara, what an amazing story this 36-year-old Navy SEAL has. This rescue operation blows the mind.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It really does, John. And I guarantee you, if you spoke to the senior chief, he would say he was just doing his job. You know, after the last 15 years of war, that's pretty much what they all say. And when we read about it, we are just taken aback at this raw courage of these people.

This is what Special Operations forces do. SEAL Team Six, the Army Delta Force, they go into the worst possible circumstances, often on hostage rescue missions, in very hostile territory, and put themselves in front of the line of fire, put themselves in front of the bullets.

We even see in this case, of course, one Navy SEAL did not make it back. He, too, is remembered today.

But it's worth noting, as we all stand here and reflect on this, there are Special Operations forces out there right now in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria, working to possibly prepare to go into Libya. These are young men right now, maybe women some day, but mainly young men, who really go into harm's way. It's not just a cliche. It's what they do -- John?

[11:40:21] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: And, Jim, President Obama made the point to say, we're talking about a SEAL operation here, that many of the details about the rescue mission are still classified. His teammates, still classified. They couldn't talk about that. The president made the point, and Barbara hit on it, not only to honor this man but also he took the opportunity to honor all special ops, saying this is likely the largest gathering of Special Ops at the White House ever. JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: And they've

become a very popular tool for this president. They are employed in so many countries now in dangerous missions. As Barbara notes, they're going to be going to more, including possibly Syria, Barbara's own reporting, more so in the Iraq.

Just a couple of points. It's the SEAL combination of bravery, quick thinking and training you see in this operation, they go into the raid, rescue an American. The man in front of him is shot and killed. He continues going forward into the line of fire. He jumps on top of someone who he's not sure whether he's a gunman or the hostage. Changes his night vision goggles, discovered he's a hostage taker, kills him, finds the hostage, jumps on top of him to save him from the fire, protects him with his own body, while holding another hostage taker with his hand to be killed by a teammate. It sounds like it's out of Hollywood, but this is what they do.

The other point I'll make, a rare ceremony. More than 200 Medals of Honor were awarded during the Vietnam War. Fewer than 20 since then. Even fewer awarded to living members of the armed forces. That's rare to see. And this, as the president noted, only the fifth Navy SEAL to be awarded this Medal of Honor. What we just witnessed there, John, Kate, and to our viewers, is a very rare event to see the man who did this, living to accept that honor, and that's gratifying to see.

BOLDUAN: At a moment when politics seem to only divide our country more and more, this is a moment that everyone can focus and come together around heroism and everyone can and should take a moment to honor, respect, and thank his service. Navy Senior Chief Edward Byers Junior, honored the Medal of Honor today.

BERMAN: And to thank all the quiet professional professionals. What an amazing thought there.

BOLDUAN: Jim, Barbara, thank you for taking the moment. We appreciate it.

We'll continue to talk about that, but we'll also turn our focus back to the politics at hand. In moments, Donald Trump will address a crowd of supporters at a rally. This is as the controversy continues to wrap around him. This time it's over Trump's KKK stumble, if you want to call it. How will he respond now as he's set to take the stage in Virginia to speak to supporters? We'll find out soon.

BERMAN: Plus, moments ago, inside the Supreme Court, something that has not happened in 10 years. This is really remarkable. This is historic. Justice Clarence Thomas asked a question from the bench. It's been a decade since that last happened. Learn what he asked.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:47:28] BOLDUAN: Breaking news from the Supreme Court. Justice Clarence Thomas asked a question during oral arguments. He has not asked a question in 10 years.

BERMAN: Again, it's been a decade since he asked a question from the bench. What did he ask? And why did he ask a question now?

CNN justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, joins us with more.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: This is just the second week of arguments since his friend, Justice Antonin Scalia died, and today Justice Thomas spoke up and asked a question during oral arguments. Last week marked the 10-year anniversary of him not speaking during oral arguments. Needless to say, it was a huge surprise to the reporters in the room today.

It happened near the end of this under-the-radar criminal case about whether domestic abusers should lose gun rights. Thomas, all of a sudden, spoke up and had some back and forth with the assistant solicitor general. According to "Huffington Post," he asked the attorney, "Can you give me an area of law where a misdemeanor law suspends a constitutional law." From there, he engaged in tough questions, according to reporters.

This is interesting. While Thomas and Scalia, who sat next to each other on the bench, shared the same conservative views in many ways, they had radically different styles during oral documents. Some court watchers believe it's possible with Justice Scalia's voice absent, Justice Thomas felt the need to step in and fill the void.

BERMAN: You wonder if this is a sign of things to come. If may be the decade of silence is over.

Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

BOLDUAN: Any moment now, Donald Trump is going to be holding a rally in Virginia. Rallying up the crowd right there in Virginia. We'll take you there as soon as it happens to see what Donald Trump has to say amid growing controversy, another controversy that he's dealing with. We'll be back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are about to elect a man who is going to put up a wall, that's going to protect us from everyone that seeks to do us harm.

(CHEERING)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:54:01] BOLDUAN: Looking right now at live pictures of Radford, Virginia, where Donald Trump is getting ready to take the stage for a rally there.

Let's get there. Senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is standing by.

We heard someone really firing up the crowd before the break. Jim, what do we expect to hear from Donald Trump?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think more of the same. He is in a war of words with Marco Rubio right now that we have not seen in this Republican campaign for president. Last night, Marco Rubio was talking about the size of Donald Trump's hands. So if that's any indication of where we are right now, I think you'll hear more of the same from Donald Trump in just a few moments. It's almost a race to the bottom from a rhetorical standpoint in the Republican Party right now.

I can tell you this is one fired up crowd here. When we were walking into this event here on the campus of Radford University, there was a line that stretched back at least a mile, mile and a half. And that was to get inside what is already a packed arena.

So Donald Trump is doing what he's done throughout this campaign. He goes from large capacity crowd arenas to the next. He's going to be doing that over the next couple of days, going from here to Lexington, Kentucky; Columbus, Ohio. He's going to be spending the night of Super Tuesday in Florida, Marco Rubio's home state of Florida. I could imagine we're just going to be hearing more of the same as this clash of rhetoric between Marco Rubio and Donald Trump could not be any more superheated at this point.

And just a few moments ago, we heard one of the speakers warming up the crowd here refer to the Florida Senator as "Little Marco." This is part of the language you're hearing at these crowds. It is basically at a fever pitch heading into Super Tuesday.

[11:55:] BERMAN: Jim Acosta, we'll get back to the event as soon as it begins. Donald Trump due to speak at any moment.

Let's bring our panel back. Joining us again, Alex Burns, Bruce Haynes, Scottie Nell Hughes and Katie Packer.

Bruce, to you. We have breaking poll news. Tomorrow is Super Tuesday. We just got some polling from two of the Super Tuesday states Alabama and Oklahoma. In Alabama, Donald Trump with 42 percent leading Marco Rubio with 19 percent. Ted Cruz is 16 percent. Donald Trump also leading in Oklahoma, 35 percent, 22 percent for Rubio, Cruz ahead of Rubio slightly at 23 percent. Bruce, I had to cut you off before we went to the Medal of Honor ceremony. I'm going to ask you first, flat-out, in your gut what does your gut tell you? Does your gut tell you that Donald Trump is about to walk away with this.

BRUCE HAYNES, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: It certainly is beginning to feel like it, isn't it, John? You said I was the establishment, to some degree I guess I am. But this is something the establishment has brought upon itself. We haven't been able to deliver for people who are feeling aggrieved by the economics in their communities, by the changes in the culture that they see and they want the Republican Party to respond to some of these things. You know, the point I was trying to make earlier was I thought and I just continue to feel that the Rubio campaign is doing the best job of the alternatives to Trump of presenting a vision for the future that more people can see themselves in, the kind of campaign that can grow and win elections. But right now in the primary process there's no question that we are seeing a lot of growth in the Trump vote and the Rubio campaign is going to continue to have to fight to respond to it.

BOLDUAN: Katie, as someone -- you've kind of laid out, mapped out what you think the right strategy is to take down Trump. What do you think of how Marco Rubio, what Marco Rubio's strategy is that at least since the debate last week? Talking about Donald Trump -- taking on Donald Trump into Donald Trump way, talking about his spray tan, talking about the fact that he believes he has small hands, suggesting last week he had wet his pants. Is this the right way, do you think?

KATIE PACKER, DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER, MITT ROMNEY PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: This isn't being Donald Trump. Donald Trump is a bully. A bully takes on weaklings. Marco Rubio is the guy taking on the bully. And so I do think that he's been sort of forced into this situation and the fact of the matter is your network, MSNBC, FOX News, they're all of a sudden running Marco Rubio's rallies live. And so you know, it is a situation that has presented an opportunity. But the true reality of this is still two things have to happen. One, the field has to narrow. I expect that Ben Carson is probably going to drop out after tomorrow night. I think John Kasich should. I think if Ted Cruz doesn't win significantly across these sec states which were supposed to be his firewall, he needs to win Texas big and he really needs to win a lot of there states to show he has a path moving forward. If that doesn't happen, people do need to rally behind one candidate and now we have a campaign going after Trump for the first time ever. Those two things together are going to be what can stop Donald Trump which has to be done.

BERMAN: We have about 80 seconds left. I want to give both Alex and Scottie a chance to weigh in.

Alex, first to you. You heard Katie say that Marco Rubio is crawling his way back. Ben Carson and John Kasich should drop out. Ben Carson wrote an op-ed today saying he's not going to drop out. John Kasich sticking around until Ohio. That's the problem.

ALEX BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I think actually Ted Cruz may be the biggest problem of all. This is a guy very likely to win Texas on Tuesday so he will have won at least two states, which is more than anyone else in the field except for Trump can say. He's been so ostracized by the national Republican Party they don't have any leverage to wield over him. There's nothing he has that the can take away.

BOLDUAN: Katie --

BERMAN: Scottie.

BOLDUAN: Scottie?

I love all of you. Just throwing out names at will.

Scottie, how many states is Donald Trump going to win tomorrow?

SCOTTIE NELL HUGHES, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, USA RADIO NETWORK: I think he's going to win at least ten, possibly. I think Texas is going to be Ted Cruz. Is does it really matter with numbers like that? The only way Rubio has a chance to continue this divide and make us have a brokered convention in august, which is totally a disappointment. (CROSSTALK)

PACKER: I think he's going to do that.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: Katie, it's going to be a broker convention. One thing we can all agree on right now. And you just made the RNC headquarters shake.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: Thank you all.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: We have an important program note. Melania Trump will join Anderson Cooper tonight on "A.C. 360". It is going to be here only on CNN at 8:00 eastern.

BOLDUAN: Thank you for joining us on a jam-packed hour. We appreciate it.

BERMAN: "LEGAL VIEW" starts now.